Training Camp for Fans Part Eight: What is the Steeler Way?
by Ivan Cole
Pittsburgh was the Silicon Valley of the Industrial Age.
That was the assessment of Howard Fineman, Global Editorial Director of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group, and former Senior Editor of Newsweek. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Fineman, but we have at least three things in common: We both had newspaper routes selling the now defunct Pittsburgh Press, attended and graduated from the same high school, and wrote articles for the inaugural edition of another defunct publication the Steelers Annual.
Fineman made the Silicon Valley reference in his Steelers Annual piece. Over the years I have found myself constantly comparing this to another statement that disguises extraordinary complexity behind a façade of deceptive simplicity. Speaking thirty years ago at the National Press Club in Washington DC, writer James Baldwin was asked what needed to be done to effectively address race relations. His response: America needed to grow up.
Both statements are precise and simple to the point of seeming incomprehensible. But if the time is taken to contemplate and unpack their meaning they beautifully frame and reveal the depth and complexity of their subjects. Meditate on Baldwin’s words and it tells you all you need to know about today’s social/political circumstances. Fineman’s words unlocks the mystery of Pittsburgh, and by extension the Steeler Way.
Part of what obscures the cultural genius of Pittsburgh from outsiders, and even its own natives, is one of its foundational spiritual characteristics. Humility, which for many is at best just a desirable affectation or sentiment, is a serious discipline to Pittsburghers. The fact that an individual of Fineman’s stature would be bothering to contribute to the Annual speaks volumes in and of itself.
On the surface the comparison of Pittsburgh and the Silicon Valley is challenging enough. The key linking concept is that of innovation. Without being fully grounded in the difference between the two formative eras, in Pittsburgh’s case the transformation from the agricultural to the industrial, compared to the transformation from industrial to the post-industrial or technological, the linkage is harder to comprehend. But once understood, those qualities can still be seen to be deeply ingrained within the city’s culture even though the factors that made Pittsburgh relevant as a great gateway community have passed on. Some of this is captured in this video highlighting the community’s current transformation.
Innovation, the process of transformation, is not possible without a grounded understanding of what is important in any endeavor. So, using just one example; in a world that does not normally question the alleged supremacy of elitism in any of its varied forms, the so-called ‘blue collar mentality’ associated with Pittsburgh is not just adorably humble, but nothing short of revolutionary. (I used the term ‘white collar mentality’ in previous writings, but I believe elitism is closer to the mark.)
The fact that the Rooney family hasn’t allowed its material wealth to alter their behavior and practices is not just sweet but also empowering. This manifests in an organization that maintains a laser focus on what is actually important to success.
One of the erroneous underlying assumptions is that God, or Nature if you will, is inefficient and wasteful when it comes to human beings. In the global sense what has driven the potential for greatness for the United States has been the expansion of national identity away from the restrictive and inefficient notion of blood and soil to fidelity to ideas and principles that allowed for access to a much larger, more diverse pool of human talent. Couched in the class based language of blue collar values a similar principle is defined on a more localized level. And the Pittsburgh Steelers may very well be one of the more successful manifestations of this principle in action.
To me it is ironic that the creation of the Rooney Rule has led to criticisms that animate the tired tropes of that of a race based quota system that circumvents merit, when in fact, what the Steelers actually have accomplished over the years was a liberation from quotas that has resulted in a considerable competitive advantage.
Art Rooney’s organization was always inclined to operate with a bias toward fairness in defiance of more prejudicial practices in the NFL and society at large. A huge leap took place when the talents and perspectives of Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll and Bill Nunn, among others, came together in the late Sixties.
The team broke from the common league practice of designating which players were black or white and roster quotas were observed. Talent was found in places off the beaten path that brought the likes of Joe Greene, Dwight White, Mel Blount, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell, whose contributions to the unprecedented success of the Seventies Steelers led to the obliteration of the quota system.
But you would only be getting part of the story if it is restricted to simply that of race.
This excerpt from Homer J’s appreciation of Ralph Berlin reveals that the expansive, out of the box approach to the procurement and utilization of talent encompassed much more than race:
Berlin, eyeing Grossman out of uniform, was unimpressed. He went in another room and called Rooney. “Dan, he’s scarcely bigger than I am,” he whispered. He was told to sign him anyway. He did. Grossman now owns four Super Bowl rings.
Jack Lambert and Mike Webster also defied convention when it came to the ‘proper’ characteristics of a player. Over the years Blount, Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart, Levon Kirkland and others who would likely be rejected by teams with a more conformist vision of what is appropriate in term of body type or character have contributed to the most successful franchise in professional football over the past half century. Currently that tradition continues with the likes of the too big Ben Roethlisberger, the too short James Harrison, the too small Antonio Brown. Will Alejandro Villanueva, just to name one, join the group as well?
Head coaches, from Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin, are neither all powerful autocrats nor convenient scapegoats for the team’s struggles. Women have played pioneering roles as a trainer and most recently an assistant coach. The two retired uniform numbers belong not to those in the glamour positions such as quarterback or running back, but to defensive linemen. A more elegant statement of the value of all contributors would be difficult to make.
In this worldview character is as an important a factor to success as talent. It is practiced, indeed, necessary, at all levels of the organization from the top of the organization pyramid to the most allegedly insignificant functions. Attributes such as loyalty become weaponized, which in turn impacts the role of development and money in decision making.
This explains how Pittsburgh differs from other organizations in respect to salary negotiations (hometown discounts), mercenaries (free agency) and community relations.
Raising a certain set of seemingly old fashioned, conservative concepts beyond that of sentimental platitudes to that of a serious discipline actually creates a radicalized system that can’t be easily replicated or even understood, because other organizations or communities do not have the infrastructure in place to pull it off. This is the Pittsburgh Way, and the advantage of the Steelers Way.
These links will take you to the previous articles in the series: Part 1: The Myth of the Knowledgeable Fan; Part 2: The Traps; Part 3: Why Drafts Will Never Be Perfect; Part 4: The Ahistorical Fan; Part 5: A Take on Steeler Nation; Part 6: The Emergence of Steeler Nation, Part 7: Fandom at the End of an Era?